Thursday, April 28, 2011

Room 13, by Edgar Wallace

With Room 13 in 1924 Edgar Wallace introduced readers to Mr J. G. Reeder, one of the least glamorous of all fictional detectives.

Mr J. G. Reeder is neither a police detective nor an amateur crime-fighter, nor is he a private detective. In fact he’s employed by the Bank of England, and acts as a kind of consultant to Scotland Yard. He’s a shabby rather timid little man in his 60s, and even the thought of handling firearms appalls him. He’s hesitant and vague in manner and sees slightly dotty. He also has one of the sharpest brains in the country and an encyclopedic knowledge of criminals and crime. British prisons contain many wrong-doers who made the mistake of not taking Mr J. G. Reeder seriously.

There are in fact two heroes in this book, the other being a certain Captain Johnny Gray. Johnny is a gentleman, and he’s also a criminal. He’s serving a sentence at Dartmoor Prison for some rather shady dealings on the racetrack. He keeps going by thinking of the girl he hopes to marry. She’s the daughter of retired bank robber Peter Kane, although she has no idea of her father’s villainous past. Johnny is devastated when he received the news that the lovely Marney is to marry a Canadian officer, and even more upset when upon his release from prison he discovers that this Canadian officer is neither an officer, nor a gentleman, nor a Canadian.

There is a dastardly plot afoot, and it involves both a vast counterfeiting ring and an old criminal’s quest for revenge on the man he believes betrayed him to the police many years earlier.

Edgar Wallace is a curious figure in the history of crime fiction. His first novel was published in 1905 so he’s chronologically intermediate between the classic Victorian and Edwardian detective fiction of Conan Doyle and his imitators on the one hand and the “golden age” crime writers of the 20s and 30s but his work doesn’t feel like either. Wallace is at the more pulpy end of the spectrum so far as British crime writing is concerned, closer to the two-fisted action of the Sexton Blake stories than to the intellectual pleasures of Sherlock Holmes.

Wallace also in some ways anticipates the American hardboiled school. Wallace immerses the reader in the twilight world of the criminal, he delights in the criminal jargon, and he revels in the sordidness and violence of the underworld. There’s also a relatively sympathetic treatment of at least some of the criminals and Wallace is not obsessive about ensuring that every lawbreaker ends up behind bars.

Most all though Wallace is always an entertaining writer and in Mr J. G. Reeder he has created a memorable and rather likeable crime-solver.

The Wordsworth Editions paperback The Casefiles of Mr J. G. Reeder includes two novels and a collection of short stories all featuring the mild-mannered but shrewd Mr Reeder.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Navigators of Space, by J.-H. Rosny Aîné

The Navigators of Space is the first of a series of volumes from Black Coat Press collecting all of the science fiction of J.-H. Rosny Aîné, a now forgotten French pioneer of the genre.

There were actually two brothers, Joseph Henri Boex (1856-1940) and Séraphin Boex (1859-1948) who collaborated on various novels and short stories under the name J.-H. Rosny. When the writing partnership broke up Joseph Henri continued to write, using the name J.-H. Rosny Aîné (J.-H. Rosny the Elder). It was Joseph Henri who wrote most of the science fiction (or scientific romances as they were generally known at that time), mostly in the form of short stories or novellas.

While he has been celebrated as a French version of H. G. Wells his work actually has almost nothing in common with that of the great British science fiction writers of that era such as Wells and Conan Doyle. Rosny’s work is much much weirder. In fact the stories in this first volume rank among the strangest science fiction ever written. Some of the stories, notably The Sceptical Legend, are more like bizarre esoteric philosophical essays. Most have very little in the way of conventional plotting.

What they do display is a prodigious imagination. Rosny was decades ahead of his contemporaries in pushing the boundaries of science fiction. The greatest strength of these tales is their depiction of alien life forms as something truly and bizarrely alien, so different from known life forms as to be almost incomprehensible. Interestingly enough the aliens are not always actual aliens - Another World deals with a boy who is simply born very very different, so different that his senses are quite unlike ours and he is in contact with a strange parallel universe that exists in the same space as our world.

Other stories, like The Death of the Earth and The Navigators of Space are perhaps closer to what we usually think of as science fiction but they still have a very marked edge of weirdness. The Death of the Earth portrays the human race facing extinction as the earth’s water disappears due to violent seismic activity while The Navigators of Space deals with a space expedition that finds life on Mars, but it’s definitely not life as we know it.

There are some strong common threads uniting thee stories. There’s the notion of other universes existing alongside our own, almost an early version of the multiverse concept. And there’s the idea of life forms based on the mineral world and others based on pure energy.

As with the other Black Coat Press editions translated by Brian Stableford there’s a lengthy and highly informative introduction plus an afterword. Stableford admits that some of Rosny’s stories are heavy going with perhaps an excessive degree of metaphysical speculation but believes that the sheer scope of the author’s imagination and the quirkiness and originality of the ideas are sufficient compensation It’s a judgment I’m inclined to agree with.

Definitely worth checking out if you like your science fiction with extra weirdness, or for anyone with an interest in late 19th/early 20th century scientific romances.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Modesty Blaise: Last Day In Limbo

Modesty Blaise: Last Day In Limbo, published in 1976, was the eighth of the Modesty Blaise novels written by Peter O’Donnell, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.

Modesty Blaise started life as a comic-strip (created by O’Donnell) in 1963. She later appeared as a character in films, novels and graphic novels. The comic-strip was hugely popular in Britain but encountered some problems in the US due to nudity and sexual content.

I suppose (not being familiar with the comics) I expected Modesty to be simply a female James Bond but in keeping with the comic-strip origins of the character Last Day In Limbo is much stranger and more offbeat than that. Modesty and her sidekick Willie Garvin have a friend with paranormal powers who helps them out occasionally, and they also call on the services of Lucifer. Lucifer is a madman in a lunatic asylum who believes he’s the Devil himself. More than that, he has strong precognitive abilities. The result is a kind of spy/paranormal thriller/crime thriller crossover.

The plot is certainly delightfully loopy. A Central American billionaire of American Indian descent has an aunt who is totally bonkers. Aunt Benita has a grudge against white folks, having gone through some bad experiences in her childhood. She wants revenge. The billionaire, Paxero, loves his aunt so he builds Limbo for her. Limbo is a slave plantation in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. To provide the necessary slaves The slaves are rich white people kidnapped by Paxero. This makes Ant Benita very happy until one day Paxero makes a mistake. He sends two professional killers to kidnap a Englishwoman on holiday in the United States. The Englishwoman turns out to be Modesty Blaise and she has little difficulty in killing her would-be kidnappers.

Modesty doesn’t know what’s behind this kidnapping attempt but the discovery of a watch leads her to believe than an old friend and ex-lover of hers, Danny Chavasse, is still alive. He had disappeared several years earlier. There’s a sub-plot involving another British female spy, Maude Tiller (Modesty herself is a former crime boss who nows works for British Intelligence). Eventually Modesty and Willie start to put the pieces of the puzzle together but beating Paxero will require Modesty to allow herself to be snatched and taken to Limbo.

Modesty is really a descendant of Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar. The Saint was also a gangster who reformed and took up the fight against evil, and like Modesty he remained a slightly morally ambiguous character. And like Modesty he could also be quite ruthless. Modesty has no problem with the idea of killing people if she thinks it’s necessary.

That slight degree of morally ambiguity undoubtedly helped the success of the comics and novels back in the 60s and 70s. Also unquestionably contributing to that success was a reasonable helping of sleaze. Modesty finds some ingenious hiding places for some of her small portable gadgets, and there’s a definite element of kinkiness

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read and the comic-strip elements give it a distinctive flavour compared to other thrillers of that era. Modesty Blaise is worth a look.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sax Rohmer’s The Slaves of Sumuru

The Slaves of Sumuru, originally published in 1951, is the second of Sax Rohmer’s delightfully entertaining pulpy crime/adventure novel featuring the beautiful mysterious female criminal mastermind Sumuru.

Sumuru and her organisation are dedicated to the elimination of ugliness and violence from the world. Their dream is a world of beauty, run by beautiful women. Their methods are ingenious and ruthless, but mostly non-violent. In this second instalment Sumuru, referred to by her followers in terms of awe as Our Lady, has switched the focus of her activities from Europe to New York. From her headquarters in one of New York’s tallest skyscrapers (a headquarters fitted out like an eastern palace, complete with a swimming pool for her pet barracuda) Sumuru is recruiting wealthy American women to assist in her plans to extend her private empire. It’s up to Drake Roscoe, square-jawed American secret service operative, and his friend McKeigh, an English newspaper reporter, to thwart her plans.

What makes the Sumuru novels interesting is Rohmer’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Sumuru. She gets to explain her philosophy, and her contention that a world run by men has been a world of endless horror, violence, corruption and ugliness is hard to refute! Not only is she not especially evil, she’s also clearly far more intelligent than her adversaries. Rohmer’s admiration for Sumuru is obvious. She may be, in theory, the villain, but she’s a remarkably attractive villain.

Rohmer’s style is outrageously pulpy, but it’s enormous fun. The Sumuru novels are somewhat unusual and wildly entertaining pulp fiction, and I’m thoroughly enjoying them.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Irish Witch by Dennis Wheatley

The Irish Witch was one of Dennis Wheatley’s later novels. Published in 1973, it allowed Wheatley to take advantage of the times to add a fair amount of sexual perversity to his tale. Not that there isn’t sexual perversity in his earlier books, but this time it’s much more pervasive.

Wheatley (1897-1977) is a surprising writer for those who only know him by reputation. He’s often described as reactionary and jingoistic but in fact he comes across in his books as an odd mixture of puritan and libertine, and his political view as expressed in his writing often hold surprises as well. He was certainly a conservative, but a complex one.

The Irish Witch also demonstrates his willingness to mix his genres. It’s a spy adventure thriller set during the Napoleonic Wars but with occult elements as well.

The infamous Hell Fire Club has been revived and is being used as a front for espionage activities on behalf of the French. One of the key figures behind the revived club is an Irish witch whose motives are a combination of Irish nationalism and greed. Roger Brooks is not yet aware of the club but his family are being drawn into its net.

Brooks is an English secret agent who has spent years undercover posing as an aide-de-camp for the Emperor Napoleon. He had been intending to retire from the spy business but circumstances conspire to throw him back into thick of it. Brooks has a new wife. He’s find of her, but not to the extent of being willing to give up his long-time mistress Georgina. Georgina is married to an elderly and ailing duke.

Georgina’s son Charles, Lord St Ermins, has long been in love with Brooks’ daughter Susan. But his devotion to Susan an his intention to marry her is not going to stop him from attending meetings of the Hell Fire Club. He’s not interested in the occult content of the meetings but he’s very interested in the orgies which invariably follow. He is soon to discover that one of the young women about to be initiated into the club is in fact Susan. And Susan and Charles are about to find themselves in the clutches of a whole bevy of Satanists, including the Irish witch herself, her daughter Jemima (who plans to marry Charles) and the lecherous Lady Luggala.

While this is going on Roger and his new bride find themselves stranded in the United States after the outbreak of the War of 1812, and will face a long and arduous trek northwards to reach the Canadian border. Luckily they make the acquaintance of a resourceful Algonquin brave named Leaping Squirrel who has been engaging in some espionage work himself. He’s about to be hanged by the Americans as a British spy but Roger does some fast talking and manages to engineer his escape.

These two sub-plots start to intersect when Georgina has a vision of her son, a prisoner of the French (he has volunteered to fight in Spain under the Duke of Wellington), about to be hanged. Knowing that her psychic powers are generally reliable. Roger has no choice but to return to the French Emperor’s service in order to procure Charles’ release.

These are just some of the complications of the plot. The problem Wheatley has in this book is that his story requires an extensive background knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 and in 1973 he could not assume his readers would have that knowledge. So there are huge info dumps which interrupt the flow of the narrative. While it’s a clumsy manner of dealing with the problem it has to be admitted that the background information he provides is fascinating.

The sympathetic portrayal of both Leaping Squirrel and his father, and in fact of their whole tribe, is one of those surprising elements I mentioned earlier (especially coming from someone of his generation with a reputation for jingoism).

Wheatley’s view of witchcraft is much less sympathetic. On the other hand, despite his customary disclaimer at the beginning of the book assuring the reader that he has never personally been involved with the occult, it’s clear that Wheatley has an extensive knowledge of and enthusiasm for his subject matter.

Wheatley’s books are highly entertaining trash of a kind that you just don’t get any more. There’s been a calamitous decline in the quality of literary trash over the past 30 years or so.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mr Standfast

Mr Standfast, published in 1919, was the third of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay espionage novels.

The success of The Thirty-Nine Steps had taken Buchan by surprise. Buchan was himself an interesting character who wrote some great weird fiction as well as works of serious history. He was created Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935 and ended up as Governor-General of Canada.

Richard Hannay is commanding an infantry brigade on the Western Front when he finds himself once again, somewhat against his will, assigned to counter-espionage duties. This time he must go undercover as a pacifist. Pacifist and anti-war activists in Britain are being used by the Germans to undermine the Allied war effort and Hannay must track down the master spy behind this plot.

Hannay finds that pacifists are not quite what he expected. Some he instinctively dislikes while for others he gradually learns to feel a grudging respect. He also has another even bigger surprise. The rather crusty 40-year-old brigadier finds himself falling madly in love with the 19-year-old Mary Lamington. Mary is ravishingly beautiful and exceptionally intelligent. She is also a formidable secret agent.

Hannay’s hunt for the German spymaster takes him to Scotland and later to Switzerland, and it proves to be a most frustrating hunt indeed. Hannay’s task is complicated by his determination to ensure that no harm comes to his new lady love, although in truth Mary is capable of looking after herself fairly well. There are many clever plot twists, exciting escapes from imminent death, and there’s a great deal of entertainment to be had within the pages of this book.

Some reviewers will lead you to believe that Buchan’s High Tory political beliefs and his enthusiasm for British imperialism combined with the common attitudes of the day on the subjects of women and foreigners make his books difficult for modern readers to appreciate. Personally I think this is nonsense. Buchan was a complex and intelligent man and his views are by no means simplistic or rigid.

He was also a masterful story teller and the Hannay novels are essential reading for anyone with a love for spy fiction.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Khaled by F. Marion Crawford

Considering the extent of the 19th century obsession with The Mysterious East and the enormous vogue for orientalist art it’s perhaps surprising that there weren’t more novels using Arabian Nights-style settings. There was of course William Beckford’s Vathek, and there was also F. Marion Crawford’s Khaled: A Tale of Arabia.

Apart from a couple of much-anthologised short stories (notably For the Blood is the Life The works of the amazingly prolific American writer F. Marion Crawford (1854-1909) are very unjustly neglected. His gothic novel The Witch of Prague is well worth seeking out.

Khaled, published in 1891, is a story of the fantastic and a love story. The princess Zegowah has many suitors but the only one she has seriously considered marrying is an Indian prince. He is unfortunately an unbeliever but Zehowah is led to believe that he will convert to the true faith if she consents to be his wife. The genie (or djinn or whichever other alternative spelling you prefer) Khaled knows that the Indian prince intends to deceive Zehowah and in a fit of anger he slays the prince.

Had the prince been one of the faithful Khaled would have faced instant destruction for his action but since the man he killed was a hypocite and an unbeliever Allah offers Khaled a chance. He will turn Khaled into a man, but without a soul (djinns do not have souls). If Khaled can win the love of Zehowah he will gain a soul and will have the same chance as any mortal of entering Paradise at the Last Judgment. If he fails to win her love then he will face oblivion when he dies.

Winning Zehowah’s love turns out to be quite a challenge. She has never experienced love and he knows little of women. He tries to achieve his objective by performing heroic deeds. He wins a kingdom, but winning the love of a woman is not so easy. Zehowah is determined to be a good wife but she believes herself to be incapable of feeling love. Khaled finds he has much to learn about women, and also much to learn about what it means to be a human being. And he must himself learn what love really means.

It’s an engaging tale of intrigue and adventure as well as being a great love story. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Panic in Paris, by Jules Lermina

Jules Lermina’s Panic in Paris (L'Effrayante Aventure) was originally published in serial form in 1910 and in book form in 1913. It’s a scientific romance but with a much more light-hearted tone than most such tales.

Lermina (1839-1915) had strong socialist political views that had got him into a certain amount of trouble over the years but by the latter years of the 19th century he was concentrating more on trying to produce commercially successful books than on political activism. More interestingly Lermina was closely associated with the decadent movement in literature and was heavily involved in the occult, being a member of the French branch of the Order of the Golden Dawn as well as several Rosicrucian groups.

The book borrows heavily from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race, and of course Bulwer-Lytton was also a devotee of esoteric cults such as Rosicrucianism.

You might expect an author with such a background to take a very serious approach to writing but in fact Panic in Paris could best be described as a madcap tongue-in-cheek romp.

A body is found impaled on a fence in the middle of Paris. A visiting English detective rather improbably named Inspector Bobby identifies the body as belonging to a disreputable boxer named Coxward. The French police sieze on this eagerly as the only real clue they have to this mysterious death but both they and the English detective are highly embarrassed when a newspaper reveals that the said Coxward was in London three hours before the corpse was discovered so the corpse cannot possibly be Coxward’s. But Bobby has no doubt about his identification of the unfortunate pugilist.

The case is taken up with enthusiasm by two rival newspapers, both taking diametrically opposed views. Events take on an even stranger complexion when the trail leads both Inspector Bobby and a reporter named Labergère to an eccentric English inventor, Sir Athel Random. Sir Athel has discovered a new element with powers even greater than that of radium. He has named it vrilium. It is nothing less than the immensely powerful substance vril described in Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race. He has used this immense power to construct a helicopter capable of flying from London to Paris in 45 minutes.

You might wonder what on earth this has to do with deceased British prize-fighters but it is in fact the key to unlocking the mystery, but the plot has more bizarre twists in store, including the dinosaur threat to western civilisation.

Nothing in the plot makes any sense but it’s all splendid silly fun. Translator Brian Stableford describes it (fairly accurately) as being closer in feel to 1950s Japanese monster movies than to the more sober scientific romances of Lermina’s contemporaries in Britain such as H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Black Coat Press edition also includes an 1890 novella by Lermina called The Elixir Of Life (L'Élixir de Vie). This is a more serious story and it’s actually an effectively chilling combination of gothic horror and science fiction. Lermina seemed to have a knack for using topical subjects (such as the discovery of radioactivity or in this case mesmerism) as a key ingredient for producing highly diverting and imaginative stories. It’s actually a much more effective tale than Panic in Paris.

Lermina’s work is not going to be to everybody’s taste but if you enjoy offbeat early science fiction there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had.